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What really happened in Odessa: A step-by-step reconstruction of a tragedy that killed 46 people (VIDEO)

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May 4, 2014, 5:54 p.m. | Ukraine — by Sergiy Dibrov

A woman speaks through a megaphone as she holds a placard reading "Putin you will suffer the fate of Hitler! Amen!" during a rally of pro-Ukrainian activists in southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on May 4, 2014. Flowers, candles and photos of the dead pile up outside a charred building in the scenic Ukrainian port city of Odessa where anger simmers a day after brutal clashes claimed 42 lives. Clashes intially broke out between pro-Russian militants and supporters of Ukrainian unity that quickly turned deadly. Several combattants, reportedly mainly on the pro-Russian side, barricaded themselves in the trade union building, which was set on fire as both sides traded petrol bombs. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANO
© AFP

Sergiy Dibrov

Editor’s Note: Odessa journalist Sergiy Dibrov witnessed the May 2 violence killed 46 people, most of whom died in a fire in the Trade Unions Building. 

Live Stream Odessa 

Before May 2 

Kulikove Pole Square in the center of Odessa used to be a prison cemetery before its transformation into a square for demonstrations and parades. In Soviet times, a pompous building that stands there served as headquarters for the Regional Committee of the Communist Party. It has been reconstructed several times. Most recently, it serves as the headquarters for the local Trade Unions Federation and rents out office space inside. 

In late February, after former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from Ukraine by the EuroMaidan Revolution, Odessa opponents of European Union integration set up an anti-Maidan camp in Kulikove Pole Square, next to the Trade Unions headquarters. 

The camp was the center of activity for supporters of Ukraine’s "federalization" – which many regard as the Kremlin code word for the dismemberment of Ukraine -- and Russian-backed separatists. It was the location of regular rallies that gathered up to several thousand participants. 

Pro-Ukrainian citizens have long demanded that authorities remove the camp. 

: Pro-Ukrainian activists rally in southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on May 4, 2014. Flowers, candles and photos of the dead pile up outside a charred building in the scenic Ukrainian port city of Odessa where anger simmers a day after brutal clashes claimed 42 lives. Clashes intially broke out between pro-Russian militants and supporters of Ukrainian unity that quickly turned deadly. Several combattants, reportedly mainly on the pro-Russian side, barricaded themselves in the trade union building, which was set on fire as both sides traded petrol bombs. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANOV

May 2 

On the night of May 2, the football teams Chernomorets (Odessa) and Metallist (Kharkiv) played in Odessa. After the EuroMaidan protests started in November, Ukrainian football fans started the game-day tradition of peacefully marching in support of Ukraine’s unity as a nation. A planned march took place in Odessa on May 2 at 3 p.m. 

In the last five months, Odessa has also seen opposing political rallies. One took place on May 1, when AntiMaidan activists and left-wing parties took part in a peaceful march. 

The next day, however, was different. AntiMaidan pages on the Russian-controlled Vkontakte social network shared calls to forcefully stop the pro-Ukrainian march and gather at Oleksanrivkiy Avenue, near the planned march. 

One of the pages called on their supporters in Odessa to “take after Donetsk,? a reference to the bloody attacks by Kremlin-backed, pro-Russian demonstrators on pro-Ukrainians on April 27. 

Red carnations have been left in homage to the victims inside the burned trade union building in the southern Ukranian city of Odessa on May 4, 2014. Flowers, candles and photos of the dead pile up outside a charred building in the scenic Ukrainian port city of Odessa where anger simmers a day after brutal clashes claimed 42 lives. Clashes intially broke out between pro-Russian militants and supporters of Ukrainian unity that quickly turned deadly. Several combattants, reportedly mainly on the pro-Russian side, barricaded themselves in the trade union building, which was set on fire as both sides traded petrol bombs. AFP PHOTO / ANATOLII STEPANO

Russian-backed attackers came armed, ready to attack 

One hour before the march, some 200 young men gathered in an agreed location. 

They came ready to fight. They had guns, bats, knives and wore helmets and bulletproof vests. They behaved aggressively and began to dismantle the pavement to prepare rocks to throw at their opponents.

At the same time, some 1,000 football fans and supporters of Ukraine’s unity gathered at Sobornaya Square. 

Only several dozen members of the Maidan Self-Defense Units, a paramilitary patriotic organization formed during EuroMaidan to support the revolution, were equipped to defend the crowd.

The atmosphere was positive in the square. Fans of the two teams from Odessa and Kharkiv sang the Ukrainian national anthem together, chanted patriotic slogans such as “Odessa, Kharkiv, Ukraine? and sang songs against Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

When the fans gathered in a column and began marching to the stadium, the Self-Defense Unit members were informed about several hundred aggressive AntiMaidan supporters coming to the square from Hrecheska Street, to attack the column of peaceful demonstrators.

Police didn’t separate the two rallies from each another. 

The armed Self-Defense fighters formed a chain and put up their shields at the crossing with Hrecheska Street to protect the fans. 

But the shields didn't stop the attackers. 

They threw rocks and stun grenades into the column. In response to the explosions, football fans and Ukrainian patriots immediately responded and threw fireworks and smoke grenades into the attackers. 

The street filled with smoke and the attackers retreated to Hrecheska Street. 

By now, however, pro-Ukrainian fans were injured with rocks, hit in the face and head. 

While the pro-Ukrainian Self-Defense members stood in a line in front of the pro-Ukrainian crowd, covering themselves with shields, police officers formed a similar line next to the AntiMaidan crowd. Even with the cordon, their Russian-backed opponents continued throwing rocks and other objects. 

The AntiMaidan crowd was outnumbered and soon went on the defensive as angry football fans went on the attack and pelted the aggressors with rocks and chased them from nearby side streets. 

: Pro-Russian militants storm the police station in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on May 4, 2014, to free the Pro-Russian activists arrested on May 2 after their attack of a Ukrainian unity rally. Around 3,000 pro-Russian militants on May 4 stormed the police headquarters in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, where 42 people died in clashes two days ago. AFP PHOTO/ DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV

Gunshots fired by pro-Russian aggressors; first person killed 

That’s when the first gunshots were fired. 

One of the AntiMaidan supporters, armed with Kalashnikov machine gun, opened fire in a lane leading to Odessa’s main Derybasivskaya Street. A bullet hit a young football fan in the chest, killing him. Several dozen others were taken away by ambulance, injured by rocks. 

After the first blood spilled, the violence escalated. 

Young women and elderly people from the pro-Ukrainian rally began dismantling the pavement and passing the rocks to the frontline. Soon, other supporters brought gasoline and foam plastic, and young women began mixing Molotov cocktails right on Derybasivskaya Street.

A four-minute video shows the confrontation and fire outside the Odessa Trade Unions building on May 2.

Several hours of street fighting leave four dead, more than 100 wounded 

Police officers attempted to protect the AntiMaidan fighters, but were thrown back by Molotov cocktails and rocks. The pro-Ukrainian side began using firearms, too.

The street fighting went on for several hours, initially claiming the lives of four men and injuring about 100 people. The deputy chief of Odessa police, Dmitriy Fuchedzhy, and the chief editor of the popular local online newspaper Dumskaya.net, Oleh Konstantinov, were among the injured.

Around 5 p.m., pro-Ukrainian activists captured a fire truck and drove it into the crowd of AntiMaidan people, using its water cannon to disperse the fighting crowd. The football fans chased the opponents, and beat those who they caught, while pro-Ukrainian Self-Defense members tried to restrain them from lynching their victims. By this time, 74 ambulances were at the scene.

After the AntiMaidan supporters were chased away, pro-Ukrainian activists headed to Kulikove Pole Square to destroy the Russian-backed camp. Some 2,000 pro-Ukrainian activists attacked the camp, where some 200 AntiMaidan supporters were present. 

A video shows Odessa police defending the pro-Russian crowd while a man is seen using a machine gun behind their backs.

Pro-Russian crowd flees to Trade Unions building 

When the activists set the tents and stage on fire, Odessa Oblast council member Oleksiy Alba called on the pro-Russians in the camp to flee to the nearby Trades Union building. 

The pro-Ukrainians attacked the building with rocks and Molotov cocktails, while the AntiMaidan supporters threw Molotov cocktails from the rooftop. 

Several bottles of petrol bombs, thrown by activists outside, broke into the front entrance and the windows of the second and fourth floor, where the fire spread quickly. 

The burning building trapped people inside. Eight of them died after jumping from the upper floors as they tried to escape from the fire. More than 20 people died of smoke inhalation alone. 

At the same time, pro-Ukrainian activists saved several dozen people from the rooms on the second and third floor. 

Firefighters slow to respond 

Firefighters arrived an hour after the fire began. 

More than 100 people inside the building fled to the roof to safety. Police officers, who arrived after the fire was extinguished, took them outside and arrested them. Some football fans attempted to attack them, but were once again restrained by the pro-Ukrainian Self-Defense members. 

Bloodiest day in Odessa since 1918 

The May 2 events were the bloodiest civil conflict in Odessa since the pre-Bolshevik revolutionary raids on the city’s Jews and street fights in 1918. 

The total death toll currently stands at 46 victims. One of the dead is Odessa city council member Vyacheslav Markin. Alba, who led people inside the Trade Unions building, survived.

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